Royal Library Collection Trust book illuminated Royal family

An illuminated treasure from the Royal Library (Photo courtesy Royal Collection Trust)

The royal family has a stupendously wonderful library. This isn’t a a bookcase or two, or even a room or two ringed by bookshelves. The Royal Library is home to more than 200,000 works. Based at Windsor Castle since 1830 in the reign of King William IV, its shelves groan under the weight of some of the most priceless books, and related treasures, ever produced, including the Mainz Psalter of 1457, the second printed book ever published, a copy of Emma that Jane Austen presented to the Prince Regent, and wax seal impressions that would have been attached to legal documents, including one from the reign of Edward I (1272-1307).


Now, to celebrate World Book Day, some of the finest books from the Royal Library are going on display, but only for a few days. On Friday, March 2 (UPDATE: due to inclement weather, Windsor Castle is closed on Friday) and Saturday, March 3, some two dozen books will be on display in the State and Semi-State Apartments at Windsor Castle. (Access to the exhibition is included with admission to Windsor Castle. Tickets and more visitor information is available on the Royal Collection site.)

Royal Library Collection Trust book Audubon illustrated Queen Mary's Doll House Royal family

Audubon’s huge masterpiece with a tiny story written for Queen Mary’s Doll House (Photo courtesy Royal Collection Trust)

The items on display include the largest book in the collection—John James Audubon’s Birds of America (c.1831–1834), which featured detailed, life-sized illustrations—and also the smallest books, handwritten by authors such as Vita Sackville-West and Rudyard Kipling to be housed in the library of Queen Mary’s Doll House.

Some of the displayed works have strong royal connections. One is on display is the Second Folio of the Complete Works of Shakespeare (1632) bearing handwritten notes by the doomed King Charles I—Dum Spiro Spero (“While I breathe, I hope”). It was read by the monarch before his execution in 1649. Another treasure is described as “a leather-bound volume written by Henry VIII in 1521 as an attack on Martin Luther, which bears the King’s signature.”

In addition to the 24 items, visitors can see demonstrations by bookbinders in their traditional techniques. Visitors can even create their own books to take home.


St. George’s Chapel is also taking part. On Friday, it will display some manuscripts and books from its own collection, including a 15th-century English-language version of the New Testament.

The Royal Library continues to grow. Its contents “are inalienable from the Crown,” its website states. And that helps explain its variety. “Collecting habits of successive monarchs, and official gifts received, have resulted in the Royal Library gaining an excellent collection of international literature,” the website explains. “In addition to works in French, German, Italian and Spanish, there are many volumes in Russian, Serbian and Hungarian as well as numerous Indian, Asian and African texts.”

Unlike state libraries, the Royal Library been shaped by past royals, and will be transformed again by current and future members of the royal family and their librarians.